Researchers see added nutritional benefits in organic milk

A team led by a Washington State University researcher has found that organic milk contains significantly higher concentrations of heart-healthy fatty acids compared to milk from cows on conventionally managed dairy farms. While all types of milk fat can help improve an individual's fatty acid profile, the team concludes that organic whole milk does so even better.

The study is the first large-scale, U.S.-wide comparison of organic and conventional milk, testing nearly 400 samples of organic and conventional milk over an 18-month period. Conventional milk had an average omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio of 5.8, more than twice that of organic milk's ratio of 2.3. The researchers say the far healthier ratio of fatty acids in organic milk is brought about by a greater reliance on pasture and forage-based feeds on organic dairy farms.

A large body of research has shown that grass and legume forages promote cow health and improve the fatty acid profile in organic . Still, said WSU researcher Dr. Charles Benbrook, the study's lead author, "We were surprised by the magnitude of the nutritional quality differences we documented in this study."

After fruits and vegetables, dairy products are the largest category of the growing, $29 billion organic food sector, according to the Organic Trade Association's 2013 Organic Industry Survey. Organic milk and cream sales were worth $2.622 billion, the survey found. Overall, organic milk accounted for 4 percent of fluid milk sales last year, according to the Milk Processor Education Program.

The consumption of more omega-6 fatty acids than is a well-known risk factor for a variety of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, excessive inflammation, and autoimmune diseases. The higher the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, the greater the associated health risk.

Western diets typically have a ratio of about 10-to-1 to 15-to-1, while a ratio of 2.3-to-1 is thought to maximize heart health. The team modeled a hypothetical diet for adult women with a baseline omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 11.3, and looked at how far three interventions could go in reducing the ratio to 2.3.

They found that almost 40 percent of the needed nine-point drop could be achieved by switching from three daily servings of conventional dairy products to 4.5 daily servings of mostly full-fat organic dairy products. Women who also avoid a few foods each day that are high in omega-6 fatty acids can lower their fatty acid ratio to around 4, 80 percent of the way to the 2.3 goal.

"Surprisingly simple food choices can lead to much better levels of the healthier fats we see in organic milk," says Benbrook.

The team also compared the fatty acids in dairy products to those in fish.

"We were surprised to find that recommended intakes of full-fat milk products supply far more of the major omega-3 fatty acid, ALA, than recommended servings of fish," says co-author and WSU research associate Donald R. Davis. Conventional milk had about nine times more ALA than fish while had 14 times more, he says. Organic is also a significant source of two other omega-3 , EPA and DPA, but not DHA.

The study was published December 9 in the online journal PLOS ONE.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Omega-3 dietary supplements pass the blood-brain barrier

Dec 04, 2013

(Medical Xpress)—New research from Karolinska Institutet shows that omega-3 fatty acids in dietary supplements can cross the blood brain barrier in people with Alzheimer's disease, affecting known markers for both the disease ...

Recommended for you

We drink more alcohol on gym days

8 hours ago

A new Northwestern Medicine study finds that on days when people exercise more—typically Thursdays to Sundays—they drink more alcohol, too.

Obesity and stress pack a double hit for health

13 hours ago

If you're overweight, you may be at greater risk for stress-related diseases like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer, according to a new study by Brandeis University.

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Ratfish
not rated yet Dec 09, 2013
DHA, not ALA, is the major n3 fatty acid, and there's nothing surprising about ALA being higher in dairy than fish. Getting a bunch of ALA is better than nothing, but it still has to be converted to DHA.
alfie_null
not rated yet Dec 10, 2013
I would have to switch from skim to whole to see this benefit.

They speak of milk initially. Subsequently, they refer to dairy products, but I missed any mention of specifically testing other products. So, I wonder if this trait is present in, e.g. butter? Cheese?, etc.